Books

Subterranean Conundrums

Every now and then, when it comes to buying stuff indulging in collectorial practices, the imaginary line I draw in the imaginary sand is smudged by an imaginary eraser. As a result of which the aforementioned line becomes the kind that would give Cecil Radcliffe a severe case of the runs, followed by the chills.

Case in point: offerings from Subterranean Press. I have whittled down my purchases to the barest necessary, but my resolve was tested earlier this month, when it was announced that Joe Hill’s latest collection of short stories, Full Throttle, would have a SubPress limited/signed release. Seeing as how my waffling over NOS4A2 did my blood pressure no good in the past, I knew I would go for it. But it took about a week of gritting my teeth and wringing my hands before I actually ventured to lay down $175 for the pleasure of owning a copy of the book, sight unseen, numbered and signed by Messrs Hill and McKean, he of Sandman renown. But the limiteds of 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box are biblionicorns of the kind that make hearts and wallets bleed, and I would rather not take a chance with a Hill book.

It also did not hurt that the Suntup Press limited edition of Hill’s Horns just came to Papa about 2 weeks ago, after a wait of about half a year. I confess to owning the PS Publishing signed/limited edition that came out in 2010, but Suntup’s version was too hard to pass on. The line in the sand that I drew for signed limited editions was that I would only buy one if the original author was among the signers, and Horns met the criteria, while Haunting of Hill House and Rosemary’s Baby did not. Not that I did not have severe crises of conscience, but the line held. It did not however hold for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one of my favorite works by the man. Suntup’s edition, not out yet, but sold out in pre-orders, has an introduction and an autograph by Joyce Carol Oates. McCarthy is notorious for not signing his books, specifically The Road, which he has apparently signed a few copies for his son alone.

What really rubbed the line this week was the announcement that Tamsyn Muir’s first book Gideon The Ninth would have a limited release via Subterranean, and copies would go on sale on Tuesday morning. Now here was the situation:

  • The only thing I knew about the book was the phrase “lesbian necromancers in space”
  • It wasn’t out yet, so I could not read it
  • Reviews had come in from a coterie of distinguished authors, including Warren Ellis, VE Schwab, Charles Stross, Robin Sloan, and Max Gladstone (whose This is How You Lose the Time War is what I am reading Right. Now)
  • I happened to get to the Tor website, which had a preview of the first chapter of the book. And by the time I got to the phrase “stupendous work of a titty nature”, I was sold.

Or rather, I was coerced into depositing 85$ for the pleasure of owning a copy of the book signed by the writer herself, courtesy of SubPress.

Which should make me feel terrible vis a vis the Great and Terrible Sullying of the line that guides my buying habits, but you know what?

The book fucking sold out in two days. Had I waited a day more to buy it, I would have been gnashing my teeth by now and breathing slow and deep trying to keep calm.

To make up for this psychological distress, here’s a bunch of pictures of the magnificent Joe Hill book from Suntup Press.

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Books

Ocean Vuong, Skylight

I probably would have never encountered Ocean Vuong had it not been for James Ellroy. Not in the way you think, though. Ellroy is the furthest one can place from Vuong when it comes to writing style or genre. But it was while attending an Ellroy signing one Saturday at Skylight books that the MC mentioned it may be prudent to buy a copy of writer Ocean Vuong’s book in advance, because it looked like the event would have to be capped.

If there is a single thing one picks up on in independent bookstores, much like in libraries, is that if a recommendation comes from a staff member or from a librarian, it’s best to not reason why, but jump right in. I bought a copy of “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous”, spent the weekend reading it, and then came back on Tuesday to listen to Vuong reading from and talking about the book, his first published novel.

It was, believe it or not, a very emotional experience. The crowd was packed, very diverse, the book obviously had a lot of fans even before its official release. I stood in the back of the store, barely able to see Vuong as he whisper-sang words from the book and from his heart. There were people crying during the question-and-answer session.

I don’t want to write about the book, or about Vuong and his life and work, since other people have already done it way better than I ever could have. What I do want to mention is that very obvious sentence. You must read this book. Because it is, true to the writer’s name, filled with joy and mystery and heartbreak and pulls you into its depths with a fierce, unrelenting tug, from the very first page. I have been reading a lot of immigrant fiction lately, tales of travelers to the shores of this country of contradictions. “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous” establishes itself as one of the best books about belonging and unbelonging that I have read in recent times.

Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past. What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?

I won’t stay here long, we might say. I’ll get a real job soon. But more often than not, sometimes within months, even weeks, we will walk back into the shop, heads lowered, our manicure drills inside paper bags tucked under our arms, and ask for our jobs back. And often the owner, out of pity or understanding or both, will simply nod at an empty desk—for there is always an empty desk. Because no one stays long enough and someone is always just-gone. Because there are no salaries, health care, or contracts, the body being the only material to work with and work from. Having nothing, it becomes its own contract, a testimony of presence. We will do this for decades—until our lungs can no longer breathe without swelling, our livers hardening with chemicals—our joints brittle and inflamed from arthritis—stringing together a kind of life. A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know that the salon is, in the end, a place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid.

The weight of the average placenta is roughly one and a half pounds. A disposable organ where nutrients, hormones, and waste are passed between mother and fetus. In this way, the placenta is a kind of language—perhaps our first one, our true mother tongue.

One of the most powerful paragraphs of the book involves the presence of metaphors for conflict and violence in discussing art, and Vuong commented on the same during his question-and-answer session:

You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience a target audience. “Good for you, man,” a man once said to me at a party, “you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ ’em dead.”

So yeah, read it.

Also, if you are ever in Los Angeles, make sure to look at the Skylight Books events page beforehand, and try to visit one of their signings. The bookshop is in a beautiful LA neighborhood called Los Feliz, and you will feel like you have been there before and walked the streets. You won’t be wrong, because it is a favorite shooting location for TV shows and films alike; two I remember off the top of my head are Ruby Sparks and Atypical, and I am sure there are many more. The bookstore is named for its naturally-lit interior, and there is a tree in the center of shop that makes it even more spectacular.

Oh, and before I forget, James Ellroy’s signing was a hoot. He’s an incredible…character, someone who plays a version of himself in a crowd. Foul-mouthed, rambunctious, funny, and very very kind in person. A reread of the LA Quartet is on the backlog. Watch this space.

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Food

A Coffee Post

Pal Ovi is back in LA on his quarterly work trip, and among the various things on his checklist is a strange request — “three boxes of the coffee you got me last time”. Which got me all in knots, because while I remember where I bought the aforementioned box of coffee (The Coffee Commissary, just a few blocks from our apartment), and how much it cost ($20 with tax, for 12 oz), and also what variety it was (African, for sure, either Kenya, Burundi, or Congo), and even the fact that the coffee roaster claimed to have the best of New York, Los Angeles, and Scandinavian disciplines when it came to coffee roasting. But the exact brand name escaped me.

Adding to the complication was the fact that this was a seasonal coffee not in stock at the Commissary any more. I mentally went through the list of roasters I usually pick up — Onyx and 49th Parallel being the two in stock at the moment, but could not remember, for the life of me, the brand I had gotten last time.

After my mandatory “I am getting old and senile” lament was done, I decided to reverse engineer my memories. Google Photos came to the rescue. I searched for “coffee” in my photo collection and got a bunch of old pictures of coffee cups and interior shots of assorted cafes. Neat, but not what I wanted. Then I searched for “blue box” because I remembered that was the color of the box. Nope. Finally, I said fuck it to finesse, and just searched for “box”, and voila, this came up.

You will notice that the photo above does not have the name of the roastery, so I had to search for “DR Congo” followed by the words “honey, plum, spiced wine”, which led me to — ta-daaaaaa — Tectonic Coffee. The precise coffee that I had gotten for my friend’s mom, and one that she liked so much, was Muungano from the Republic of Congo.

I have been enjoying buying coffee beans, and occasionally grabbing a cup of brew, from Commissary. Not only because it’s so close to home, but also because it’s like an oasis of calm on Motor Avenue. It opens at 7 AM every day. So if I run out of beans, an event most likely to occur on an early weekend morning, it’s easy to just saunter over to buy a fresh bag. It also helps that their choice of music veers close to mine — the other day, a barista had the bright idea of playing the complete Sylvan Esso debut album from beginning to end, as I was sitting inside sipping on my Gibralter.

For the record:

  • I have cut back on coffee-drinking
  • I have one cup a day, black, no milk, no sugar.
  • Bellemain French press, fuck-all grinder at home (planning to upgrade to a refurbished Baratza Encore)
  • Impeccable technique thanks to the fine folks over on r/Coffee
  • Current beans: Burundi Karyenda from Intelligentsia.

Update

Pal Pablo, on a text message the morning after this post:

The whole post sounds so snobbish it makes me want to go to a Starbucks and drink any of the goat pee they sell as coffee

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Music

Music-Mania May 2019 Edition

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has a soundtrack to be proud of. Music hand-picked by Olivia and Dan The Automator, featuring the likes of Alanis Morrissette, Sofi Tukker, LCD Soundsystem, and Perfume Genius. But the one track that blew my mind was a song by Fata Boom, called ‘Double Rum Cola’. You see, it features a sample from a very, very familiar song from this 90s Indian boy’s childhood.

The song plays in an insane slow-mo last-day-of-high-school sequence, which is perfect.

You gotta go watch Booksmart. It’s phenomenal, and not just because of the music.


I heard a song while having dinner in an Indian restaurant in Toronto. It’s surprising I paid attention to it because I was in wonderful company and the conversation was sublime. But the melody felt…familiar. It’s an infuriating feeling to not recognize a song immediately, and I knew that later, it would come back to haunt me. So I switched on Soundhound, and the track that showed up was something I had never heard before. It was called ‘I Wanna Know’, by NOTD, featuring Bea Miller on vocals. Decent 6-out-of-10 summer dance track, but I could not understand why it felt so familiar.

It was only later, after I had hummed the main verse a few times, that I realized I had heard it after all. Well, not the original, but the version that appears on Ark Patrol’s ‘Entropy’.

I came across the music of Ark Patrol by pure happenstance earlier this year, when he released his first full-length album. It’s one of the best downtempo/chill LPs I have heard in 2019, and has been on repeat for the better part of the last quarter. The way he samples Bea Miller’s vocals for ‘Entropy’ is magical; the voice lowers an octave, the refrain becomes a plaintive wail, the beats and drone slither hypnotically. Electronic music at its finest.


The sheer joy of Michel Gondry’s video for the Chemical Brothers song ‘Gotta Keep On’ keeps on making me high. (hyuk!) But Gondry being Gondry, I love the turn the visuals take towards the middle. Just the subtle tweaking of reality that modern-day CGI brings to the director’s toolbox. MG, most known for directing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was the director of choice for some of Bjork’s greatest songs.

Bonus: Michel Gondry’s video for Metronomy’s ‘Love Letters’ (2014)

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Comics, Meetings

Meeting Lewis Trondheim

Nine years ago, (freeze-frame, record scratch, “wait, nine years ago?!” “Oh yes, it has indeed been that long”) nine long fucking years ago, one fine day in June (May?), I torrented a bunch of comics off of Demonoid. For those who came in late, Demonoid was a sort-of elite bit-torrent hub that guaranteed quality content. Umm, quality pirated content, back in those Dark Ages when the internet was a mud-pit you needed to dive in to and swirl around in for a bit before you grabbed onto something that might be good but you wouldn’t really know until you got the dang thing on your hard drive and clicked on it, but then oh no, all your file extensions would change and you could not click on anything anymore and the only way to do anything was to set the computer on fire and move to another city and start over with your life…. Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but close. Things were not synchronous — you could not press a button and have movies, music, or books streamed to you with zero delay. There was work involved in consumption.

But Demonoid was a safe space, in the sense that the torrents were vetted properly, and uploaders were particular about what sort of files they put up. My deal with Demonoid was that every night, I would scroll past the comics section, checking for new uploads that looked interesting. From the descriptions and an accompanying Google search, of course. Most of it was filled with random superhero trash, most of which I already read and owned, or random underground trash that I did not like, or porno comics that barely fit the constraints of “porno” or “comic”.

Except that night, I came across this series called Dungeon, and a creator named Lewis Trondheim. Searching for him led me to French blogs and websites. The cover artwork looked great, cartoon figures done in a minimalist way, and with just the kind of signals that tell you the content within is not for kids. And turned out the American publishers were an outfit called NBM, who were bringing in, among other things, works by Hugo Pratt, reprints of classic Terry and the Pirates. Cool. I downloaded the set, and read the first two arcs. The reading order was included in the description, because apparently the series had been published as collections of stories that jump through time and various characters. Even the choice of artists was different, except of course, for the common elements — creators Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar.

I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved it so much that I sat down and wrote a long review of the first arc, Dungeon Zenith, for my ongoing Rolling Stone column. It is still online, bad formatting and all. (Not my fault, I believe their website mangled some encoding characters) I stand by nearly everything I wrote, and that’s a kinda-sorta miracle considering how much my tastes have changed in the last decade. Except I cringe about the fact that I say Joann Sfar is the artist. I am wrong, Trondheim did the art. Sfar is an artist as well, and you can read his incredible work in The Rabbi’s Cat, but the distinctive look of Herbert the Duck and Malvin the Dragon is all Trondheim. And as I found out later, Trondheim has a thing for anthropomorphic animals.

The problem with reading Dungeon back then, and with writing the review, was that I ended up getting inundated with questions about where one could buy the books. To close friends, I told the truth, and even passed on a DVD burnt with the set of downloaded Demonoid files. (On an aside, isn’t it strange that the phrase “burn a DVD” will cease to exist in a few years? If it hasn’t already). To others, I pointed them to the NBM site, because at that time, their books weren’t even stocked on Amazon. It was obscure beyond belief.

A year and a half later, I traveled to Spain for the first time in my life, and ended up meeting a whole new universe of comic art friends with whom I had corresponded online for the better part of a decade. They in turn took me to meet various creators, in their studios, and to the homes of their friends. And funnily enough, every shelf I glanced at (and drooled over, because the Spanish publishing houses did not skimp on their deluxe editions. This was the time when Preacher did not even have a hardcover release in America, while Spain had them published in oversized editions with faux-leather covers, designed to look like family Bibles) had a couple of series in common. There was the ever-popular Tintin and Asterix, and Franquin’s Spirou and Pratt’s Corto Maltese. And there was, surprise surprise, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series.

To my surprise, these were large, album-sized volumes. It was jarring to realize that Twilight was actually six volumes when I had read three, but flipping through them, I realized that the American editions were 2-in-1 editions. My friends told me about how the rotating crop of artists were fan favorites, names like Christoph Blain, Manu Larcenet, and Boulet, whose works I would go on to explore later. It transpired that this series that I had thought of as an adorable, little-known whimsy was actually quite the cultural cornerstone. In France and Spain, Donjon or Mazmora was a phenomenon among fans and creators alike.

In 2017, Trondheim visited San Diego Comic Con, along with his wife Bridget Findakly, as part of the release of Bridget’s graphic memoir Poppies of Iraq. That was a year when my SDCC plans had fallen through, but I got a pass for a single day just so I could go meet them (and a few other creators, like Marjorie Liu, Adam Warren, and Nate Powell). It was a pleasure meeting them, and Lewis did a beautiful sketch in my copy of Ralph Azam and another in Poppies, which Bridget colored beautifully.

But it was San Diego, so there was not much in terms of interaction other than a thank-you and the hurried drawing. There were other fans waiting behind me, and there were signing schedules to queue up for. I felt lucky to have met them — and Findakly’s book was an excellent read during my train ride back. The little sketch they drew almost looked like it was printed on the paper, and brought a smile to my face every time I saw it.

* * *

At SDCC 2018, I saw an ad for a comics festival due to be held in May 2019 at Huntington Beach. The guest list for the festival was awe-inspiring. Sergio Aragones, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, usual SDCC stalwarts. Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips would be there, Sean’s first Stateside appearance in more than a decade. And a treasure trove of French creators, including Lewis Trondheim and Boulet, another Dungeon artist. I marked the dates on the calendar, eager for a chance to meet Trondheim again.

Last September, I visited Rose City Comic Con, as part of an attempt to visit more conventions outside California. It was held in the heart of Portland, and the experience made me eager to continue my non-California con trips. Talking about this convention experience will take a whole post of its own, but what was important about Rose City was that at one particular booth, Cosmic Monkey Comics, I found a near-complete set of Dungeon, and Trondheim’s autobiographical Little Nothings for a price that made me want to go around shrieking with joy. I had tried, without much success, to look for Dungeon in bargain bins, but NBM did not run discounts. Their books were on Amazon, but at full price.

So last weekend, when NCSFest was due to happen, I decided to go overboard with my signing plans, and took every single one of those books with me. The worst that could happen was that I would get one or two signed, and I didn’t even want to think of the best-case scenario. Which was that I would get all the books signed by Lewis Trondheim.

(That is a conscious thought I have at the moment, dear reader. To have every book on my shelf be signed. It just makes the pleasure of owning a thing also be tied in to the experience of meeting a creator, and it somehow adds a meta-story to the physical object. Anybody can buy a book, but it’s an honor to create a story around something you have bought. Is that hubris?)

The thing about NCSFest was that they were trying to emulate the European model of having the town be involved in the convention. Everything was free. Parking was free at City Hall, and shuttle buses carried you over to the pier, where all of Huntington Beach Main Street was cordoned off to traffic in favor of streetside booths. Events were held at the Huntington Beach library and the Arts Center. There were live drawing sessions organized right on the pier. The best part was everything looked so laid-back. The crowd was a mix of comic-book fans and casual tourists who were curious about what was going on. A lot of children and parents together. My favorite retailers Stuart Ng was set up, in association with Comics BD, who were hosting a bunch of signings.

Lewis Trondheim was due to arrive at the ComicsBD booth from 11:00 AM, and I was there, with my Dungeon: Zenith books. Boulet, the artist on Vol 3 (vols 5 and 6 in the European versions) was sitting next to him, and he grabbed my copy. Apparently he had never seen the English version before, and for a few nervous minutes, I thought he was making good on his claim that he wanted to keep the book. He didn’t. Instead, I got a breath-taking sketch inside.

Since this was a very informal event, the amount of people making their way to the creators could only be described as a trickle, especially that early in the morning. The majority of visitors who came up were French expats. I chatted a bit with Boulet as he was sketching, asking him what he thought of the show. “The lines in France are crazy”, he said. “I am kind of a big deal there with the blog.” He sketched a copy of his English release for me as well. Trondheim sketched on my two books, and then refilled his pen. He had some free time, and I put the Little Nothings books in front of him, saying that he did not have to sketch in them, just a signature would be enough. “I have all the time in the world”, he said. “I am here for you.”

Long story short: I bought a few more of his books from the ComicsBD store. He sketched in all of them. He drew sketches in every single one of my Dungeon books. “I am a huge fan”, I said, and with a glint in his eye, he deadpanned: “I see it”. Which made Boulet crack up.

Later, I went and found a bottle of wine at a store, and came back to the booth to hand it over to Trondheim, who was by himself. He graciously accepted, and we talked a bit about art collecting and what kind of books he read. Joann Sfar was his favorite collaborator, and he hadn’t read any American comics in ages. I told him that Dungeon Monstres vol 1 was the only volume I did not own, because it was out of print. “I can ask my publisher if they have it”, he offered. I said that I had already spoken to them in Toronto, and they apparently were sold out and did not have plans to bring it back into print. He shook his head. Apparently, there were a couple of new volumes of Dungeon he was working on, but he wasn’t sure if NBM would publish them in English.

Finally, just before I was due to leave, I asked him if he sold any art. “Yes, but it’s very expensive”, he said, laughing. “You may look on my website”. He was right, the two pages up were indeed in the five-figures, but he had a surprise for me. He took out a small portfolio filled with watercolor sketches of La Lapinot, his character that hasn’t yet been translated into English. They were all superb, and I picked one immediately, because the price was perfect too!

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